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Folk Instruments' Page Two...
Background: The ocarina (or "vessel flute")
belongs to the wind instrument family. Its body is closed at
both ends to create an enclosed cavity and is perforated with
anywhere from four to 13 holes. Its mouth tube projects from
the body (usually on the side), and there is also a sound hole
(usually on the underside of the body).
Contrary to common thought, the ocarina is not a closed-pipe
wind instrument. Its acoustical physics differs from a pipe because
sounds (or notes) are created by the resonance of the entire
cavity. In fact, the ocarina's body acts in the same technical
manner as a resonator. However, the ocarina's resonator is incapable
of creating harmonic overtones. For example, the technique of
overblowing to get a range of higher pitched notes is not possible.
While this limits the range of pitches that can be produced,
the ocarina still produces a sweet set of notes. Perhaps this
is why players have nicknamed the ocarina the "sweet potato."
Despite the limitations of the body's resonance, ocarina notes
can range from the tonic to the eleventh. With proper finger
play, it is possible to perform both the chromatic and diatonic
Clay vessel flutes were often made to resemble birds and other
animals. It is speculated that the vessel flute came about with
the discovery of blowing into a broken water vessel (or pouring
jug) to make a sound. Different tonalities come about when a
hole or crack was covered or uncovered with a hand or fingers.
It is believed that the vessel flute came into existence more
than 12,000 years ago. Ancient vessel flutes have been found
throughout the world and small, terra-cotta vessel flutes shaped
like birds and other animals have existed in India for over 6,000
years. An earthenware wind instrument called a "xun"
was shaped like an egg and existed in China a thousand years
earlier. The xun (also called "tschuan" or "tsing")
had six holes and an embouchure (blow hole).
Vessel flutes held a particular importance in ancient Chinese
and Mesoamerican cultures. Various cultures in Asia and the Americas
used vessel flutes as part of their religious ceremonies. Ancient
vessel flutes have been made from animal bones, antler, clay,
gourds, jade, quartz, and seed pods.
The Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans of Central and South America
made vessel flutes that were sculpted to represent zoomorphic
(animal) and anthropomorphic (human) forms. Discovered pre-Columbian,
four-hole vessel flutes date back to around 500 B.C. As with
the cultures in Asia, Native Americans incorporated their vessel
flutes into their spiritual and daily lives.
Another vessel flute was the "gemshorn" and is currently
thought to have appeared in England and Scotland around 1300
A.D. This vessel flute was made from the horn of a type of goat
called a "gem." By the way, gemshorn flutes are still
Europeans were introduced to Native American vessel flute
music when Fernando Cortez sent a troupe of Aztec dancers and
musicians to perform for the court of Emperor Charles V. In 1527,
these Aztec performers impressed and astonished their audiences
with their "alien" music and its power to influence
emotions and moods. Among the instruments played by these Aztec
musicians were "ocarinas" -- fippled pottery whistles
and vessel flutes -- whose origins can be traced back 1,000 years
to the Alti-Plano Bird Dancers.
After these Aztec performers entertained Pope Clement VII
in Rome, they became well known and toured throughout Europe.
Their European exhibitions impressed European instrument makers
and would, eventually, influence the development of European
Legend has it that they also impressed a Roman baker who was
mystified by the sight and sounds of the Aztec's clay instruments.
During this time period, it was common practice by European bakers
to make low-fired pottery items with the hot ashes of their baking
ovens. This Roman baker decided to make toy ocarinas for children's
amusement, which were sold at markets and fairs. It was not long
before this novelty item drew the attention of other bakers who,
in turn, introduced this musical toy to other parts of Europe.
These ocarinas remained a popular children's toy for nearly 350
years until another Italian -- a musician-baker this time --
decided to make various sizes of ocarinas for adult musicians.
The 10-hole ocarina was invented in 1853 by Giuseppe Donati
in Budrio, Italy (near Bologna). These ocarinas (made in assorted
sizes) were the first ocarinas pitched to the diatonic scale.
His instrument's terra-cotta body was egg-shaped and resembled
a small headless goose. ("Ocarina," by the way, is
Italian for "little goose.") Later, he would make many
types of ocarinas, including pump, flute, bottle, three-voice,
and double ocarinas (two octaves). Pitched keys included Do Basso,
Do Piccolo, Fa, La, Mi, Si, Sol, and Re. Besides terra-cotta,
Donati also made ocarinas using ebony and aluminum. He signed
all his ocarinas in gold!
Soon after Donati began making ocarinas, the world's first
ocarina orchestra formed in Budrio and began to tour Europe.
This orchestra consisted of seven musicians playing Classical
and Opera music with different types of ocarinas. From Donati's
days until now, the City of Budrio has remained the proud home
of a long succession of ocarina makers and orchestras.
Other instrument makers started producing ocarinas in various
sizes and were used by soloists and group musicians alike. In
1870, two former apprentices of Donati (and former members of
the Budrio ocarina ensemble) traveled to Paris, France, to produce
ocarinas. Alberto and Ercole Mezzetti's ocarinas were recognized
for their musical quality and earned awards at exhibitions in
Paris and Edinburgh, Scotland, as well as other cities. Yet another
Italian instrument maker by the name of Luigi Silvestri invented
the double ocarina, which was exported around the world.
Greater notoriety came to ocarinas in 1874 after a concert
at the Crystal Palace in London, England. According to The London
Daily News, the Mountaineers of the Apennines ocarina consort
"played a selection of operatic morceaux with a perfect
skill and execution." This consort included three of Budio's
famous ocarina makers and performers: the Mezzetti brothers and
Cesare Vicinelli. The following year, Donati received a gold
medal at the exhibition in Bordeaux, France, and was later recognized
for his musical contributions with a diploma of honor.
Vicinelli began making ocarinas in 1878 at Fornace Silvani
(The Silvani Kiln) in Bologna (and, of course, near the City
of Budrio). His expertise as a baker, a kilnsman, and an accomplished
multi-instrument musician made him an excellent ocarina maker
and performer. His ingenuity led him to use fitted molds that
greatly increased his workshop's production of ocarinas.
Antonio Canell made ocarinas in Ferrara, Italy, from 1878
to 1940. His innovation was to add a metal piston to the double
ocarina to alter its pitch. Though he didn't produce ocarinas
at the rate Vicinelli did, they were shipped around the world
as well. Unlike Vicinelli, Canell took commissions to create
While the Budrio region of Italy was considered to be the
world's center of ocarinas, France also has its place in ocarina
history. Along with the Mezzetti brothers, there was also C.
Mathieu, who made ocarinas in "fin de seicle" Paris.
He invented and received a patent for a bird-shaped, metal ocarina
that was more than one meter tall! To promote ocarina playing
in France, the Compagnie Generale de L'Ocarina was formed.
Composers continued to write parts for ocarinas in their orchestral
works. Among the many who found a use of the ocarina's music
were Certani, Janacek, Ligeti, Penderecki, and Respighi.
In 1900, the Sears & Roebuck Company started selling ocarinas
in America through their mail-order catalog. Its rise in popularity
soon gave the ocarina the American name "sweet potato"
because of its sweet sound and overall shape. Ocarinas became
popular in Japan soon after a Japanese ocarina maker began production
When Vicinelli died in 1920, his assistant, Giodo Chiesa,
inherited his estate -- including Vicinelli's tradition for ocarina
making. While Vicinelli had been reluctant to pass on the secrets
of fine ocarina making to his apprentice, Chiesea carried on
the Budrio tradition and honor of Fornace Silvani.
A contemporary of Chiesa who also apprenticed under Vicinelli
was Emilio Cesari. Cesari invented the "ocarintron"
(with two pistons to change key) and the "flautino"
(a two-octave ocarina). Silvestri's concept of the double ocarina
(a smaller ocarina within a larger one) had earlier inspired
Antonio Canella to invent the "bi-ocarina" (two stacked
ocarinas with separate mouthpieces). In turn, Cesari was inspired
to take their ideas a step further to invent the "triple
ocarina." In the same time period, Luigi Avalli of Cremona,
Italy, invented "double-voice ocarinas" in Terre (1/3)
and Gemelle (1/1).
Throughout the 20th century, the ocarina gained popularity
for its ease of play, sweet sound, and transportability. The
U.S. Army issued ocarinas to its troops during World War II as
a morale booster. These "war ocarinas" were either
made of a new molded plastic called Bakelite by Gretch or made
with metal by C. Mathieu, H. Viehnor, and others.
Hollywood also got into the act when Bing Crosby, Bob Hope
and Dorothy Lamour played ocarinas and sang "When the Sweet
Potato Piper Plays" in the film "Road to Singapore."
Crosby also sang and played "The Little Ocarina Song"
in "The Road to Bali."
During the 1950s, American public schools used ocarinas to
teach their students music. Greater popularity came for the ocarina
in America after the release of the 1953 movie "Stalag 17."
In it, the character "Joey" (actor Robinson Stone)
plays an ocarina.
In the 1960s, a British mathematician named John Taylor invented
a "four-hole ocarina" (13-note chromatic octave) and
introduced cross-finger tuning. This technique increased the
player's ability to incorporate virtuosic elements into music.
Even with just four finger holes, a player could still have the
full chromatic scale of an octave. Adding a thumb hole increased
this range to one note above the octave.
During this decade, the Troggs' song "Wild Thing"
featured an ocarina solo by Reg Presley. The ocarina was used
in 1966 for the soundtrack of the Italian-made Western movie,
"The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," starring Clint Eastwood.
Its director, Ennio Morricone, would also feature ocarinas in
his other film scores. In 1976, Berthold Bertolucci's film, "1900,"
utilized the traditional Italian ocarina sound with great results.
The cross-finger range was maximized during the 1990s by an
American named David Hannauer. He did this by adding a second
thumb hole to raise the four-hole ocarina's range to the eleventh
(one octave plus a fourth). Meanwhile, artists such as Simon
Le Bon of Duran Duran, continued to make use of the ancient tones
and sounds of ocarinas.
Ocarinas experienced yet another rise in popularity when the
video games "Legend of Zelda: Ocarina in Time" and
"Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask" were released in 2000
for the Nintendo 64. In these games, the hero uses his ocarina
to time travel and gain access to other parts of the game world.
The ocarina continues to be popular in America, England, Germany,
Japan, Italy, and other parts of the world. Today, craft makers
throughout the Americas, Asia, and Eastern Europe make a wide
range of ocarinas from wood and clay. Handmade ocarinas are a
commonly sold item at arts and crafts fairs as well as at Renaissance
festivals and musical gatherings.
Fact: In 1928, the famous Japanese sculptor, Aketa, began
Fact: American servicemen introduced Europe to Bakelite
with their plastic-molded ocarinas during World War II.
Fact: The porcelain factory in Meissen, Saxony, Germany,
allowed local ocarina makers to use their blue and white "onion
pattern" as an exterior design. They soon became known as
"Meissen ocarinas." However, the factory itself never
produced an ocarina.
Fact: Fabio Menaglio is the current ocarina maker in Budrio,
Italy. Like his predecessors, he continues the tradition of producing
ocarinas based on Donati's benchmark style. Also, Budrio's Ocarina
Orchestra carries on the tradition of playing seven-part Classical
and Opera music on their tours throughout the world.